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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid


chiel n. a (young) man; a child; a young woman

Chiel (which rhymes with "peel") is often used in modern Scots as a generic term for a person, like "bloke" or "chap" in English. Although more frequently heard in the north-east, the word is still known throughout Scotland. Last August, The Herald reported that Sir Richard Branson might venture to run space-trips from a launch-pad in Lossiemouth, with "chiels boldly going where no chiel has gone before".

The word is also found in the name of a charity. Aberdeen Press and Journal reported in November that:

"Ballater Charitable Chiels have hauled in the impressive sum through a variety of events this year, including their annual golf and auction day in June."

Both Scots chiel and English child derive from Old English cild, but in later centuries their meanings have become differentiated. Recorded in Scottish texts from the late fourteenth century onwards, an early example of the Scots word meaning "young man" is found in Gilbert Hay's fifteenth-century Buke of Knychthede:

"Quhen a childe is maid knycht (becomes a knight), he thinkis nocht on the poyntis of the ordre that he sueris (swears) to kepe".

In the Middle Ages, a chiel could also be an apprentice, a servant or a sailor.

The word also appears in modern north-eastern Scots literature, for example in Sheena Blackhall's fictional story, Disraeli For Me (2002):

"I wisna supposed tae like Malvolio, bit I did. She said he wis a pompous wee nyaff, tho nae quite in sae mony wirds, an she telt me tae rewrite the hale essay tae peint the chiel's character aricht."

But some chiels are downright inauspicious. As reported in the Scotsman in 2003, in eighteenth-century Buchan, a secret society indulged in uncanny, eldritch practices: "Young farmhands would be taken into a darkened byre to shake hands with the 'auld chiel' - the devil - after swearing the oath of secrecy."  


This week's Scots word was written by Dr Maggie Scott.

First published 1st June 2006